On a sunny day last week I was delighted to take the first step on a planned odyssey to experience the homes and places associated with William Morris when I visited Bexleyheath and the Red House, designed by Philip Webb and once described as ‘the beautifullest place on earth’ by Morris’s friend, the painter Edward Burne-Jones. The house, which was the Morris family home for five years from 1860, is set back from the road amid a residential area of mainly detached, early 20th century houses, most of which sport some element of the Arts and Crafts vernacular including gables, red bricks, beams and stained glass roundels. Sitting comfortably within its walled gardens under the dappled shade of established trees, the Red House seems to exude a warm welcome and I felt privileged to wander round the informal flower beds whilst waiting for the guided tour to begin.
Having been a private residence subject to multiple changes of ownership before it was acquired by the National Trust in 2003, the house retains fewer Morris/Webb design elements than might be hoped but new discoveries are being made all the time as layers of white emulsion are cleaned off to reveal rich wall paintings, and some of the essence of the place is being reinstated as original artworks and furniture are brought back, including Webb’s large refectory table. The main reception rooms are papered with Morris & Co designs which are not contemporary as Morris rejected wallpaper in favour of paint effects, some of which remain in the original patterned ceiling of the stairwell. Recent cleaning has restored them to their original vibrancy and the grid of small holes made by the plasterers to enable the geometric designs to be precisely executed can be seen.
However, the heart of the home for all Morris fans has to be the Women’s Drawing Room on the upper floor with its fabulous murals by Edward Burne-Jones including the representation of William and Jane as the King and Queen at the centre of a medieval romance. This room also contains the Red Lion Square settle, a large storage cupboard with a number of shelves and compartments. Originally with doors painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, he famously removed them when Morris moved out in 1865 and had them framed. One of these ‘Dantis Amor’ is in the Tate collection and the other two ‘The Salutation of Beatrice in Florence’ and ‘The Salutation in the Garden of Eden’ are in the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa but applications by the Trust to have the panels returned to the Red House have so far proved unsuccessful.
Despite a mild disappointment over the extent to which the house has been altered in the intervening years there was nevertheless a thrill to experiencing a place imbued with so much of Morris’s taste and style. The informality of the tour allowed me to run my fingers over the worn wood of the over-large entrance door and the oak newel posts of the staircase which he once touched and, peeping through the stained glass windows into the sunny garden I could almost see the ghosts of William, Jane and their friends enjoying their family-friendly home.
You can find out more about visiting the Red House on the National Trust website: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/red-house. My next trip will probably be to Standen House in East Grinstead and eventually I aim to visit Kelmscott Manor. If you would like to comment or find out more about my trip, then please do get in touch via the Contacts page.